Alper Boler, Mill Valley
Disaster planning should include foreseeable elements.
A new Mill Valley evacuation study by Google highlights that evacuating a catastrophic wildfire takes less time if only one car per household is used. When the experts are digging deep in the toolbox and coming up with this improvement, it’s obvious that Mill Valley, like many other towns, is not built for easy evacuation.
The new study builds on conclusions of the first simulation (2021), which showed the movement of 6,000 households sped up by two hours using contra flow (all lanes flowing one direction), turning off traffic lights, and staging cars to safety/freeway in blocks.
But there are more than 6,000 households in Mill Valley. The second study included them. The number almost doubled — from 6,000 to 11,000.
In the newest simulation, even with the “one car per household” improvement, my neighborhood (near the Edgewood reservoir) shows as only partially evacuated at the three-hour mark.
The study assumed a nighttime fire with everyone home and no street traffic. It did not take into account any complications like tourist traffic, blocked roads, panic, multiple wind-driven ember fires or any other elements of chaos.
This is a study of a generic evacuation.
We are obviously living in an area rife with hazards. I commend the city for studying our deficits so thoroughly; there is only so much that can be done with this maze of substandard roads. This is why our emergency services are working so hard to keep us informed and prepared.
What’s absent from this report is anticipation of the additional cars and blockages coming if huge amounts of state-mandated housing units are built.
For Mill Valley, this starts as 865 new homes before 2031. This is not a request, the state Regional Housing Needs Assessment mandate dictates that the city must show an ability to accommodate expansion by that number. The RHNA chart is included here.
The 865 includes 315 units of market-rate housing, plus a combined total of 550 in the extra-low, low, and moderate-income categories ($52,000 to $210,000). Except for 45 units in the city’s nonprofit Hamilton project, the rest is left to for-profit developers.
State laws entice developers to include small percentages of the less-profitable affordable units with sweeteners like swift approvals. New laws allow skirting of regular standards regarding height, setbacks, density, parking and public notice, to name a few. After the “affordable”, less profitable units are figured in, the rest can be market rate.
Mill Valley has a commendably high requirement of 25% affordability. But this still means that for every 75 luxury units built, only 25 would be produced in the affordable range. Since the state demands the full 505 units (split very specifically between extra low, low and moderate categories — see chart), it will take many market-rate projects to create them.
At 25% affordability, 865 bloats into 2,000 homes to yield the mandated 505 lower-income units. Of those 2,000 units, about 1,500 would be market-rate.
So, considering this, why we are still using the status quo to evaluate hazards and evacuation? This housing cycle is well known. If Mill Valley adds 2,000 households and cars, what will the next Google study look like?
Will it show — under the best conditions — my neighborhood partially evacuated in, say, five hours instead of three? Every resident — current and new, homeowner and renter, wealthy to low income — will face the same elevated risks.
What kind of casualties are the cities and the state prepared to accept for forcing blockage and density into areas with known severe fire hazards? Marin County in total has a mandate of 14,405 units, which explodes to over 40,000 when you do the math.
Our legislators and the governor and the Department of Housing and Community Development (HCD) are actually aware that they’ve created this situation, but it was intentional, and they refuse any adjustments.
The state should start showing some consideration for the lives they are endangering.
What Marin residents get in exchange for a small amount of below market rate units is a huge bump of luxury housing that covers every bit of buildable land left, blocks egress during emergencies, and doesn’t do much to solve our critical affordability issues.
This is the Marin Voice piece published November 10th in the Marin IJ. Because they made some weakening edits, the copy here is closer to the original submitted:
Here is the link to the MV evacuation simulation:
Here is a link to resources that can help you prepare for emergencies: